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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 6 – By Sean P. Wallace

Want to know what’s happening? The first book Dust and Sand was serialised here at Geek Pride. A summary is available here. You can also buy the definitive edition of Dust and Sand at all good eBook stores.

Gentle Branch, the Chief’s most-trusted warrior, was the one ordered to take Dust to Kehuadinune’s secret entrance. Dust’d hoped it’d be him: thoughtful, straight-forward, and plain-spoken, he was. Dust liked the man’s company.

“I envy you, Dust,” he said shortly after setting off. “Entering the city of our ancestors is a great honour. One we have been denied for years.”

“I’d take you if I could.”

Gentle Branch shook his head. “I would never break the ruling of my chieftain, my friend. But I wish I was in your shoes.”

“You don’t want that. No one would.”

The warrior turned his broad, gnarled face toward Dust and tutted. Maybe forty, he didn’t have a scar or wrinkle on him thanks to his regenerative tattoos. Only his eyes showed his age. From what Dust knew of this magic, ageing and each regenerated wound would come on him all at once. Some time soon. Such warriors know they’re trading away their old age. Like Shadows Fade. So Gentle Branch would not see as many years as Dust, would likely not meet his grandchildren.

Dust winced as his tattoo bit into him. Gentle Branch took that as an apology.

They talked further on the way, small matters of band politics, the weapons Dust’d improved for the Teotek, or just tales of the past. The latter was a richer vein of conversation, with Gentle Branch telling stories from before he’d had warded tools and tattoos to rely on.

They weren’t walking toward the carved city. Instead, they circled the band’s protective wards and headed for some innocuous boulders a mile south. Dust’d never thrown his magical senses over the city – doing so’d be taken as an insult – but figured it’d be okay to look ahead. Yet he could find no magic that’d hint there was something there.

Not that that meant anything. His senses mightn’t be as good as the magic protecting the city.

“That where we’re headed?”

Gentle Branch looked back towards his people. Dust followed his gaze. No one’d followed them. No one paid them any attention. Still, you can never be too careful, so he didn’t reply.

When they got to the boulders, Gentle Branch squeezed through a narrow gap between them. Then dropped out of sight. Dust laughed and leaned in: there was a two foot wide hole leading to some sort of cave. Gentle Branch grinned up at him.

“Were you worried?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“Are you sure?”

“Hundred percent.”

“Fine, fine. Come down then.”

Dust leapt down, dirtying his worn-in jeans and patched up shirt.

The small cave, dry and dusty, tapered to a crawl space on one side and was sheer rock on the other. It reminded Dust of the temple to That Which Sins that Shadows Fade had destroyed. The one Penelope had been held in. He’d thought that demons’d made the Wastrels’ hideout, but maybe they’d used techniques from the Native Americans.

Or maybe this was how the Three entered Kehuadinune…

Gentle Branch snapped his fingers. Magical light appeared on his forehead, illuminating the long stretch ahead. Endless, beige rock and dirt. Then he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled ahead. If this was an eldritch tunnel, the warrior didn’t care a jot.

Dust crawled after him, only seeing smooth rock and Gentle Branch’s ass for maybe ten minutes. The tunnel didn’t get any wider or narrower, just kept going and going. Dust didn’t get bored, but he sure was glad when the tunnel finally widened into a space too low for him, but tall enough for Gentle Branch to stand properly.

Before them was a stone door. Magic roared from it. Constant waves, mist from a waterfall. Even someone who couldn’t feel magic’d know there was something powerful abroad, either in the door or beyond it.

“This is one of three doorways into the old city,” Gentle Branch said. “They only open for a short period every day, and will not open again until the sun has set and risen.”

The warrior pulled a snake’s tooth from his thick hair and handed it to Dust. “This particular door opens when an adder’s fang is pressed against it. Keep this safe or you will die in there.”

Dust took the fang, white and clean, and twirled it on his finger. “I’ll bear that in mind.”

“Whenever you are ready, my friend.”

“Anything I should know?”

“Nothing you couldn’t discover.”

“True enough.”

“Were you anyone but a chosen of Resistance, I would wish you luck. As it is, I wish you speed.”

Dust nodded and pressed the tooth against the door. The magic fell away, making the barrier little more than a slab of rock. Dust pushed at it with his shoulder. Antique dust dislodged as the stone allowed the city’s lower levels their first fresh air in years.

Before the spell could recover, Dust slipped through and pushed the door closed, leaving him alone in the choked, ancient air. Gentle Branch crawling away was the only sound he heard, and that only lasted thirty seconds. Then he was left in silence, darkness, stillness.

Dust pleaded with his tattoo for the magic to light his way. It decided to be an awkward bastard. Resistance couldn’t very well expect him to proceed in the dark, yet here its presence in his body was being obstinate. There would be a reason, but he couldn’t think of it. Not that the damn thing operated by logic…

Least, not any logic Dust knew of.

Though why would it? No one had ever seen anything like it: a roaming magic source, magic disposal unit, and power for his tough and regenerative body. A portal to the only benevolent god mankind’d met. The damn thing was why he’d agreed to join the Solution in the first place. To seek answers. Well, here he was, on the run, knowing little more than before.

The tattoo finally relented and let him summon a small ball of light. Finally, he wasn’t in darkness. Not that there was much to see: only a featureless, roughly carved corridor. Walls crumbling, ceiling suspect. This was built quickly. Maybe it was a possible escape route that never got finished? So the people of Kehuadinune had warded it instead on their way out. He didn’t know, but it felt like he was in an afterthought. Or a mistake.

Dust walked ahead of the light ball. His movement and breath echoed in the narrow space. He took his time. Battles ahead might need his energy.

After half an hour, the rough corridor became a real passage. Tiled flooring, dead magic carved along the walls, and sconces for torches. The ground was slanted slightly, so he had to lean to his left as he walked. It remained still and dead. And it smelled of damp rock and old bones.

Eventually, he came to a fork. The right tunnel led further down, the left would return him to the surface. Dust went right, into the earth’s bowels, seeking ancient magic.

What could this bowl be? He didn’t know of any bowl-like artefacts that’d help prove a theory. Then again, why would he if this thing has been hidden for centuries? How could it help prove a theory though? Maybe the golden bowl saw into the future. Or the past. The past was more likely, but even that’d require something of great power. And something of great power could’ve attracted something mighty powerful to feed on it.

Dust reckoned One Who Goes About’s story about Kehuadinune being evacuated was true. Half a feeling and half deductive reasoning. No social change would leave the city dangerous for humans to enter. Yep, there was surely something eldritch ahead.

Finally, some action. He grinned as he walked along. It’d been too long, too much time cooped up. He wanted to kill something.

This corridor curved gently to the left for maybe an hour. A corkscrew in a rotten wine bottle. Then it stopped suddenly with a mile-deep drop. A ladder was carved into the nearest wall, its top jutting up a few inches. It’d require strength and concentration, and no small measure of risk, but it was a way to proceed.

“Guess I’ve got a climb ahead of me.”

His voice echoed away into the depths.

On the edge of his hearing, something tittered. Someone else might’ve thought it their imagination or a trick of the ancient city. Dust knew better. Something had heard him and found his pronouncement amusing.

“I can hear you, you know,” Dust called, his words repeating all the way down.

This time, he got not a titter but a full-blown laugh. Foul air rose from below, a warm belch. His hair and clothes were tousled by the force.

Dust wafted the foul smell away, breathing out slowly. And his fingernails blackened before his eyes. Curious, Dust pulled at one. It came away. Easily. He wasn’t best pleased as he dropped the nail down the abyss, but he wasn’t worried either: the fingernail quickly grew back. Then blackened once more.

“That’s a waste of power, you know.”

Another laugh.

“Let’s see how funny you think this is.”

He closed his eyes, leaving him in a blank world with no stimuli. His nose’d gotten used to the stench already. That was good: the silence would give him adequate warning if anything approached. Even a shift in the still air’d do the trick. So he could concentrate on absorbing the dark magic thrown at him, this evil which’d meant the deaths of so many Teotek warriors. For that was one of the main benefits of his tattoo.

Dust lowered his defences to let the foul magic burrow into him. Into his blood, his meat. His legs tried to buckle, his head span, but that was the plan: he made a river for this evil to enter through. Now, it’d all flow in no matter what.

After a short prayer, he fed the flow of spiteful magic right into his tattoo. The damn thing actually behaved this time. Opened its bottomless maw to suck in every damn mote of energy.

Fuck but it hurt. Damn stuff not only wore him down, but ripped as it was absorbed. Juddering, teeth clenched, Dust fought against breathing too loudly and ruining the peace which kept him safe. His eyes watered. Light and agony flared behind his eyes.

But Dust didn’t have to give Resistance everything for this service. Just two weeks ago, absorbing this much dark magic would’ve left him drained and dry, but Dust could now do it for no cost aside from the pain. One of the perks of the Teotek’s sanctuary.

When the hateful magic was gone, Dust opened his eyes. The pain went, his shaking stopped. All was the same as when he’d closed them. Well, not exactly the same: the smell had gone and his remaining fingernails no longer blackened.

He nodded to himself, proud of a job well done. Clumps of hair tumbled from his crown. More was piled on his shoulders. Reaching up, he found all his hair had fallen out, even his damn eyebrows. His hands were hairless too. And his arms. And chest. He was smooth as a doll.

“Shit. You joking with me?”

Resistance, at least, was doing him the damn favour of regrowing his missing fingernails. His eyebrows’d probably grow back soonish – the ‘god’ didn’t want him looking any weirder to common folk than normal – but he’d likely lost every other bit of hair on his body.

To prove his theory, Dust shook his jeans legs out. Leg and some pubic hair fell to the ground. But not all of it: he had to claw into his underwear for great handfuls of coarse, black hair. Out of spite, he dropped them all down into the abyss.

A low giggle rumbled up from below, though it was not as confident as before the belch. That cheered Dust up, at least.

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Sean is an editor, writer, and podcast host at Geek Pride, as well as a novelist. His self-published works can be found at all good eBook stores.

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